And disregards the rest

Posted on Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A Bloomberg report saying China has hidden spying microchips in American electronics – and the denial by the American companies affected – really brought home to me, once again, that we live in a world where nothing is true.

Well maybe that is not entirely ‘true’ – if I can use this now politically-charged word in a self-referential context.

It seems, at least to me, that there is broad agreement that the sun will come up tomorrow. If there is a sporting event, there do not appear to be many who would dispute what the official score was. (There may be disputes about whether the referees should have allowed individual goals or about what the score should have been if the officiating had been up to the challenge, but we do not have political debates about whether the official result was a win for Team A or a win for Team B.) With apologies to Bishop Berkeley, I think I can safely say that the vast majority of people – perhaps as much as 100% — would agree that if you kicked a large stone your foot would hurt.

But I am struggling to come up with other examples that would gain universal support.

The microchip story broke in Bloomberg which says “six current and former senior national security officials, who—in conversations that began during the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration—detailed the discovery of the chips and the government’s investigation.”

Strangely, to me at least, the denial did not come from the Chinese government who is supposed to have masterminded the operation but from the supposed victims. (Here from Gizmodo.com) The link to the Amazon response which Gizmodo provided no longer works, but a little Google found it here on the AWS website. The statement says “There are so many inaccuracies in ‎this article as it relates to Amazon that they’re hard to count.”

Apple’s press release is even more direct:

“Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server. Apple never had any contact with the FBI or any other agency about such an incident. We are not aware of any investigation by the FBI, nor are our contacts in law enforcement.”

Maybe this is just bad reporting by Bloomberg – somewhat unexpected given the news services’ good reputation but not unknown for such things to happen. Interesting that even Bloomberg had to admit that “The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.”

However, the US is in the middle of a trade war with China and that country’s alleged spying and security attacks via its flagship electronics companies is one of the issues at dispute. A story about such a pervasive breech – the Gizmodo article called Bloomberg’s report “frightening” – would be a good way to build support. And with all due respect to my many friends and colleagues in the US, the current administration has not shied away from exaggerating for political gain, nor is its fact-checking always the most thorough.

The administration certainly acts as if it is at (trade) war with China and as we all know, “the first casualty of war is truth”.

Conversely, Apple and especially Amazon have much to lose if the Bloomberg story were to be true. Their responses were unlikely to be “Wow! Thanks Bloomberg! We’ll get on that right away.” I would have expected at least something cautious like “These are serious charges and we will put all our efforts to getting to the bottom of them.” Instead the story is flatly denied, and both say that Bloomberg refused to cooperate with them when they tried to investigate.

Theoretically, the denial story, which is the latest to be published, should be the one that people remember. However, that is not necessarily the case.

I saw the far-more exciting “The Chinese are spying on our smartphones!!!” story more often than the mundane Apple and Amazon denial. I was inspired to write this article sitting in a telecom conference this week and hearing a respected industry leader repeat the original headline without mentioning that the victims had debunked the whole thing.

We are busy. We hear one story, but we do not hear the other. Or, as Simon and Garfunkle say, we only hear what already conforms to our world view.

Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

One of the challenges with Big Data and Analytics is that if it tells us something we already knew it was a waste of time and effort but if it tells us something we did not know, something that goes against received wisdom, it is very likely to be denied by the senior executives that have to make decisions. Again, a waste of time and effort.

Finally, and waxing philosophical (sorry), how would we function in a world that has no truth? Where everything – even the laws of physics – was considered a subjective, perhaps politically motivated, opinion. If this sounds like a world created by Phillip K. Dick, it probably was.

When certain laws of physics are not of immediate consequence – as debates about a geocentric or heliocentric universe were in the 16th and 17th centuries – maybe it does not really matter (although it did to Galileo and especially to Giordano Bruno). In practical terms, does it matter that between 6% and 20% of Americans believe that the Apollo moon landing was faked? Is my life affected by those that believe the earth is flat (2% of Americans and a surprising 4% of US Millennials)? (Is their life affected?)

But someone who believes that electromagnetic radiation causes brain cancer might find modern living complicated.

More seriously, if a significant percentage of people were to believe (incorrectly) that Apple and Amazon products have direct pipelines to Xi Jinping’s laptop, some rather unfortunate decisions could be taken.

This should be a straightforward question: do the spying microchips exist or not? It is a question for the engineers to deal with. Yes or no?

Apparently, I am being naïve.

Lie la lie.

(Title and lyric references: From The Boxer by Paul Simon and made famous by Simon and Garfunkle’s 1969 recording on the Bridge over Troubled Water album.)

 

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